Testing the strength of the paywall

paywall subscribe here wall street journalIn 2010, The Times caused huge controversy when it moved its online content behind a paywall, a ‘crazy move’ even according to Mike Darcey, the man who would become CEO of News UK. However, we have since seen a shift in approach, with four national UK publications now operating a paywall system; The Sun and The Telegraph having introduced their schemes over recent months. While it is unsurprising that publishers are looking to monetise online content, paywalls introduce a new set of challenges for their sales and marketing teams.

Consumers have been willing to pay for traditional print magazines and newspapers, but online versions have long been taken for granted as a free service. Recent research reveals the extent of the problem. 80 per cent of UK internet users polled in August 2013 stated that newspaper paywalls were either a ‘bad idea as they would not pay for online news content’ or ‘pointless because the same stories were available for free elsewhere’. This is evidenced by their behavior when a paywall is introduced; it was reported that The Sun’s web traffic dropped by 60 per cent after the introduction of its paywall.

This reluctance to pay for web-based content presents publishers with issues when it comes to monetising online editions.

Paywalls and page views – the challenge for digital marketers
While driving online subscriptions is a key concern for sales teams, digital marketers are also affected by the introduction of paywalls. Marketers in the publishing industry are focused on increasing page consumption. Their remit is to boost engagement through Facebook recommendations, LinkedIn shares and tweets to drive page views. The more places a link to the article exists, the more eyeballs will land on it – increasing ad impressions.

However, it is difficult to increase online engagement if readers are being blocked from the very pages marketers want them to consume.  Therefore, publishers need to consider paywall strategy from both a sales and a marketing perspective, considering how digital marketers can keep readers engaged through the paywall as well as developing strategies to increase online subscriptions.

Not all paywalls are built alike
It is important to note that no two paywalls are created equal. A ‘hard’ wall blocks visitors from reading any article until they subscribe, whereas a ‘soft’ wall makes select content viewable before a subscription is required. The Financial Times recently introduced a system whereby non-subscribers can elect to answer survey questions, providing market insights in return for reading articles. But how many UK newspapers are actually testing their paywalls?

The key to developing a successful paywall strategy lies in online testing, to learn more about what readers are willing to do or pay to access content. Important questions include how permeable a paywall should be and how much, if any, content should be available prior to hitting a paywall.  Optimal solutions will not be developed through intuition or assumption. For publishers to be profitable online they need to apply rigorous, scientific and focused testing strategies and put in place insight based solutions.

A/B testing: How can publishers optimise their paywalls?
A/B testing platforms, like those provided by Optimizely, are used to investigate the impact of adjustments to a website, allowing web developers to test how design, layout and messaging impact customer behaviour. Testing is an essential tool to help publications develop a paywall strategy that will work for their readership.

The paywall page is the perfect starting point for publishers looking to implement a testing strategy. The goal on this page is for a reader to click on the call to action to subscribe. This creates multiple testing opportunities, outlined below using this Wall Street Journal page as an example.

The article
On the page above, the sub-headline is almost hidden between the main headline and the call-to-action image. Yet this line of text could be vital to conversions, because it’s the only preview of the article available. The preview information could be the tipping point between a page bounce and a conversion. To increase subscriptions, the publication could test the following factors:

– The size of the sub-headline – is bigger better?

– Spacing around the sub-headline – if there is more space around the text, will more people be enticed to sign up?

– The amount of content – does displaying a sub-headline convert as many people as displaying the first sentence of the actual article?

– Longer article preview - what happens to conversion rates if they tease two-paragraphs of the article?

The promotion
Publishers have different ways to promote their subscription offers. Here the Wall Street Journal uses a hyperlinked image which is rife with testing opportunities, including:

Messaging: It is worth experimenting with different headlines and calls to action to see which leads to more conversions

Price positioning: Factors to test include: does repositioning the cost of subscription on the page have a positive effect on subscriptions? How much information is needed? Is it enough to say “$1 A Week for 12 Weeks” or does the reader want more information?

Image content: Marketers can work with the design team to investigate the impact of different graphics. In this image it is worth exploring whether a digital device is more effective than a newspaper. Taking this to the next level, does an iPad image work better for users who see the page on a Mac?

Button language:  Publishers could test whether ‘Subscribe Now’ works as well as ‘Try it Now’ or even ‘Get the Full Story’

Each of these tests could be set up in minutes and answer critical questions about how the paywall should be presented to maximise subscriptions

After the publication answers some of these basic, but critical, questions it can get more sophisticated by using segmentation to push different content to distinct user groups. Segmentation strategies to consider include:

Mobile device versus desktop : It is possible to show tablet users a promotional image that conveys reading news on the go, while desktop users see an image of a user reading the paper at home on the computer

  – Recent visitors: Publications can also welcome recent readers back to the site, before offering them special promotions to sign up

  – Multiple blocked: If a reader has attempted to read a number of articles behind a paywall, publications can target them with messages to emphasise what they are missing by not signing up

  – Category specific: Readers who view science articles might be inspired by a promotion that promotes the best, science related content behind the paywall

There is no doubt that the game has change for publishers and it is too soon to tell which type of paywall model, if any, will prevail. While the received wisdom is that paywalls are disliked by readers, through testing it is possible to see how readers respond best to these changes – as well as driving subscription. However somepublications such as The Times and The New York Times have already managed to roll out profitable paywall schemes, demonstrating it is possible to monetise online content.

As print media continues to decline, the publishers that survive will be those who are willing to experiment with their online presence to make decisions based on test-based insight before innovating rapidly to ensure they are driving sales and enabling marketing strategies that work in a world where paywalls are a reality.

Matt Althauser is European General Manager at Optimizely.